Legislators with propane ties prove to be key allies

July 8, 2013 By    

More than 1,200 cities make up the state of Texas, and each one had its own set of rules for regulating the propane industry just a few years ago.

“A lot of them would adopt the International Fire Code, but they would adopt their own version of it,” says Jackie Mason, who handles regulatory and legislative affairs at the Texas Propane Gas Association (TPGA).

Tony Dale saw the regulating inconsistencies as a problem. Dale, who spent about 15 years with Ferrellgas and served TPGA as secretary/treasurer from May 2010 to February 2012, was among those who lobbied to standardize rules across Texas by recognizing the Railroad Commission of Texas as the regulatory authority.

Dale and TPGA were ultimately successful in their efforts, as a bill was passed in the industry’s favor in 2011. This year, however, two congressmen at the state level attempted to repeal the law put in place. Dale again had a hand in determining the law’s fate, but his role was different the second time around.

As a Texas state representative who was elected in 2012, Dale worked closely with TPGA to uphold the law he previously fought to enact.

“I suspect I was the only person who helped pass a law [as an outsider] one session and then had to defend it as a legislator the next to keep the law in place,” Dale says. “Fortunately, my experience with Ferrellgas and the Texas Propane Gas Association allowed me to speak intelligently on that particular matter.”

As unusual as the shift is from propane retailer to state legislator, Dale isn’t the only person in politics who got a start or spent part of a career working in the propane industry. And like Dale, the propane people in today’s political arena maintain many of their ties to the industry and continue to advocate for the fuel’s advancement.

Playing defense in Missouri
Glen Kolkmeyer, a state representative in Missouri, is another politician with a propane background. Kolkmeyer’s father got into the fuel business in 1955, and he ventured into propane a year later.

By the mid-1980s, Kolkmeyer took over the company and acquired several competitive propane retailers in the area east of Kansas City, Mo. The company, which was established as Wellington Oil & Gas and became Tri-County Propane following an acquisition, had 800 customers when Kolkmeyer’s father handed him the reins. Tri-County expanded regionally into west central Missouri across parts of three decades.

Kolkmeyer sold the retail business to AmeriGas in 2008, but he retained the trucking part of it.

“Today, I’m the manager, my wife is still the business manager, my daughter does the billing and my son is the head of operations,” says Kolkmeyer, whose company, Energy Transport Solutions, moves propane, anhydrous ammonia, refined fuels, liquid fertilizers and dump trailers. “We’re running anywhere from 10 to 13 transports.”

Kolkmeyer, a past president of the Missouri Propane Gas Association, participated in multiple lobbying events at the Missouri State Capitol over the years. Those experiences piqued his interest in politics, and he built a relationship with former Missouri state Rep. Dave Oetting over a few years. Kolkmeyer even helped Oetting run for state Senate in the mid-1990s in a campaign that was ultimately unsuccessful.

By 2004, Kolkmeyer decided to make a run of his own at Missouri’s Senate. He fell short after receiving 48.5 percent of the vote, he says. Eight years later, Kolkmeyer gave Missouri’s House of Representatives a shot after a friend in the statehouse reached the term limit. Kolkmeyer won with 59 percent of the vote, he says.

“I went to [office] to play defense – not offense,” he says. “I have four grandchildren, and I want to leave Missouri a better place than I found it. If my son, who’s running the business now, gets as many new government regulations in the next 25 years as I’ve received in the past 25 years, there won’t be a company for my grandkids.”

One propane-related issue Kolkmeyer has tackled during his tenure in office is like the one Dale dealt with in Texas. Kolkmeyer says propane marketers were encountering problems with local building codes, but Missouri recently adopted National Fire Protection Association codes and standards as the regulatory authority.

“One of the other issues we’re dealing with is definitions,” Kolkmeyer says. “One is to put ‘[propane] autogas’ in the state statute where it has not been a term before. We’re hoping to promote propane as an alternative [fuel].”

Missouri’s legislative year ended May 17, so Kolkmeyer is spending his days this summer preparing to move Energy Transport Solutions into a larger facility to give it the ability to do tank testing.

“We are big into propane,” Kolkmeyer says. “I see myself as in the propane industry, even though I’m not the day-to-day retailer any longer. I’m still here and there. I still have friends in the propane industry, and that’s kind of the neat thing. I still go to all of the events. I’m still a vendor.”

To Tobacco Road
Tommy Tucker, a state senator in North Carolina, doesn’t have an active propane business like Kolkmeyer. Tucker did, however, have a short stint in the late 1970s with Suburban Propane Partners LP, which gives him a good understanding of autogas and its potential for his state.

“I was in sales in 1978 with Suburban Propane, and I drove a Chevrolet four-door sedan that was powered by propane,” he says. “Back then, it was a lot more laborious to fill the car because you had to reach into the trunk. The car I had was closing in on 180,000 miles. All we did was clean the oil and replace the brakes. It had 40,000 [miles] when I got it. The engine was running like a fine-tuned sewing machine.”

Although it’s been more than 30 years since Tucker drove that Chevy, the experience gives him a perspective on autogas that most of his political colleagues don’t have.

“That autogas is being used in school buses is nothing new,” says Tucker, who adds that as a mechanical contractor his business uses propane forklifts to warehouse equipment parts. “There are additional safeguards now, and the filling procedure is so much easier. Autogas just needs a little more traction, and then it can be used as a viable fuel like compressed natural gas.”

Another North Carolina state congressman, Rep. David Lewis, is a big user of propane on his farm in Dunn, N.C. Lewis, who produces cotton, soybeans, wheat and milo at Lewis Farms Inc., primarily grows tobacco across 360 acres.

“He’s always been one of our bigger tobacco farmers,” says Wayne McLamb, owner of McLamb’s LP Gas & Supply Co., which supplies Lewis Farms. “And about 10 or 15 years ago, he and a partner got into the cotton ginning business, which uses a lot of propane.”

In addition to using propane in the tobacco curing process and for his cotton gin, Lewis uses propane to heat the greenhouses that produce his tobacco seedlings and for his grain-drying system.

“In 2012, the combination of the farm and the cotton gin used 183,000 gallons of LP,” he says.

Lewis describes his tobacco kiln as an oven that heats up to 165 degrees to transform raw green tobacco into a cured form.

“We use technology that balances the LP-powered burners with the right amount of air and moisture,” he says.

Lewis’ second-biggest use of propane is at its cotton gin, Quality Gin Inc. Propane dryers there remove moisture from raw cotton, allowing it to be cleaned to increase its value and allow the seed to be removed. Cotton can then be sold to mills, and the seed can be marketed for oil and other uses once it’s separated from the cotton.

“I have a great impression of the propane industry,” Lewis says in an email interview. “In addition to providing comfortable, affordable heat for homes, LP provides a much-needed economic tool to rural North Carolina – literally powering the economic engine of farms and businesses. It is a great industry that provides good employment to a lot of people, and the industry is represented well by its suppliers.”

Lewis adds that in his role as a legislator, propane is a topic of discussion when alternative fuels come up.

“Propane is so very important because of its portability,” he says. “Competing fuel sources have limited delivery systems and, as such, are not able to serve a large percentage of rural North Carolina.”

Dale’s journey
Dale’s propane experiences and road to his state capitol are vastly different than Tucker’s and Lewis’. Dale, who was recruited to Ferrellgas in 1997 after dedicating more than seven years to the U.S. Army, got his first taste of politics in 2009 when he was appointed to his city council in Cedar Park, Texas.

“Because this is a very fast-growing area, we went through redistricting for the state legislature,” Dale says. “That included my hometown. I decided to run for the legislature, and I won the seat in 2012.”

Since Dale has been a member of the Texas House of Representatives, he has been elected to the House’s 11-member Energy Resources Committee, which has jurisdiction over matters pertaining to the production, regulation, transportation and development of oil, gas and other energy resources. Dale is also secretary of the Texas House Energy Caucus.

“There’s a very diverse set of backgrounds in the Texas House,” he says. “It became known to others that I had this background in alternative fuels. People come to me from time to time to discuss these issues.”

In addition to serving as a state rep, Dale’s civic involvement in the propane industry continues. He has his own firm, Spancil Hill Consulting LLC, in which he assists fleets in their alternative fuel conversions. His last role with Ferrellgas involved converting fleets to autogas.

“We’ve come to the point where I’m not with Ferrellgas anymore, but I still have a lot of friends in the industry and understand the industry well,” Dale says.

About the Author:

Kevin Yanik was a senior editor at LP Gas Magazine.

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